Failure to Put Principles into Practice May Have Cost Republicans at the Ballot Box
Republicans are still deep, deep in a post-Election Day funk, analyzing what went wrong and what it all means. Should the party move left? Should it move right? Is it doing enough to win over demographic groups with which it fared poorly? I have no intention of wading deeply into that morass today. I’m not a psychologist. I would, however, offer some observations, prompted by this news story in Sunday’s Denver Post.
Only one member of Colorado’s congressional delegation (Doug Lamborn) opposes an extension of wind subsidies, according to the Post, even though almost every one of those members, if they were asked, would claim to oppose deficits and support fiscal responsibility. Such contradictions never hurt a Democrat: everyone expects such cognitive dissonance from them. But they can and do hurt Republicans, because the party’s brand, and most rank-and-file Republicans, still require a certain degree of fidelity to limited government ideas. And this is where wishy-washy Republicans really hurt themselves.
One of the biggest things killing Republicans this time around was that they lost core voters. Many registered Republicans, who are also presumably conservative, defied expectations and stayed home. They didn’t rush to the polls in an effort to oust Obama. That sunk Romney. And the Republican wimp-out on wind subsidies offers one plausible explanation for why.
The Republican Party, though it talks a good game about being anti-big government, still lacks a lot of street cred on this critical issue. And it will take deeds, not just words, to make up lost ground with conservative stalwarts. Republicans do share responsibility for the mountain of debt the nation has accrued. They can spend and earmark with the best of them, as the Bush years proved. It’s hard for the party’s standard-bearer to credibly oppose Obamacare when he’s got Romneycare lurking in his closet. And the party’s consistent lack of consistency on issues such as the wind power tax credit extension only deepens suspicion, even in the Republican base — and maybe especially in the base — that the GOP is all talk and no action when it comes to cutting government.
How can Republicans speak convincingly about fighting corporate welfare, for instance, or about the need to make hard choices, or about the folly of “command-and-control” or ”central planning,” when all but one Republican in Colorado’s congressional delegation supports an extension of soon-to-expire wind subsidies? Here’s an issue on which Republicans could draw a bold, clear line between themselves and the opposition. But the GOP’s wimp-out on wind continues to blur those distinctions, alienating already-wary conservatives and watering-down the party’s limited government brand.
The true test of sincerity on fiscal discipline isn’t when the proposed spending cut hurts another state, but when it potentially hurts your own, even though it’s the fiscally-responsible thing to do. And Republicans, at least on wind subsides, are failing the test. Then they wonder why Romney couldn’t even pull the numbers McCain did in Colorado four years ago.
Mitt Romney did take a stand against wind welfare, to his credit, but he didn’t do the same against ethanol, probably for fear of hurting his chances in the Iowa Caucuses. The inconsistency created a credibility gap on both issues. His position on wind subsidies might have helped him win conservative votes in Colorado, but his position was undercut, and he was made to look out of step with his own party, by self-styled fiscal conservatives in Colorado’s delegation — you know who you are – who’ve gone wobbly on this issue. I’m not sure what the polling is telling Republicans on this issue. I don’t really care. Eliminating any government giveaway can be made to look politically unpopular by a savvy pollster. Showing leadership in a fiscal crisis (something Republicans say they can do) means making tough but correct calls – and convincing constituents that some short-term withdrawals are necessary in order to kick the spending addiction. The party is lost if it begins to calibrate such positions based on polling, rather than principle.
It’s not as if Republicans lack sound, compelling, principled arguments for ending these economic preferences. Here are just a few that would be winners not just with the party base, but with common sense centrists, of which Colorado has many.
1.) We just can’t afford it. No country wheezing under the weight of a $16 trillion national debt should be spending money propping-up an industry that has become so dependent on handouts — and one that delivers so little energy bang for the bucks. These energy technologies may be renewable but they certainly aren’t “sustainable,” at least in the fiscal sense of the word, and it’s long past time to take off the training wheels and separate the competent wind companies from the mere freeloaders. There’s absolutely no hope of getting a grip on runaway spending if we can’t even trim away such an obvious piece of federal fat.
2.) Wind’s economic impacts are exaggerated, temporary and unsustainable. Some Republicans may honestly buy the jobs justification for keeping subsidies flowing, but then they’ve jumped in bed with Obamanomics, which calls such wasteful expenditures ”investments” and views government as a legitimate — even indispensable – tool of job creation. The industry-generated job estimates widely-circulated for wind-related jobs in Colorado are greatly inflated. Yet politicians and normally-skeptical media types take them at face value. And those figures begin to deflate (ala Vestas) at the mere suspicion that the subsidies might go away.
Republicans ought not to be rewarding, but to be shaming and condemning, the cynical companies that have built an entire industry on a subsidy-dependent business model. They ought to be angry when Colorado workers are used as hostages or pawns in an effort to shake-down taxpayers for perpetual handouts. Republicans can’t simultaneously fret over the culture of dependency government welfare programs are said to breed in individuals, while enabling similar levels of dependency in an entire industry. The word “job” ought to be defined as something that will last beyond the cut-off of federal funds — something that has legitimacy, viability and longevity in the competitive free market system. Otherwise, it’s really just welfare by another name.
How can the GOP take a credible stand against ”corporate welfare” or ”crony capitalism” when they themselves are up to their knees in it?
3.) Wind will survive without subsidies. Ending subsidies now wouldn’t spell the demise of wind power and it wouldn’t deprive the industry of all government support, contrary to popular perception. In fact, it would probably improve the productivity and competitiveness of already-existing wind companies if we took away the crutch and winnowed the field to those who can cut it in the real world. A day of reckoning must come sooner or later — and the fiscal crisis argues for sooner.
Finally, direct subsidies are only one of the government preferences from which this industry benefits. It also enjoys a guaranteed market for its product in many states, thanks to renewable energy portfolio standards. The Pentagon is spending billions annually buying green energy, irregardless of what it costs. And Big Wind is, and has long been, the beneficiary of significant taxpayer “investment” in renewables-related R&D, of the type that’s gone on since the late 1970s at Colorado’s own National Renewable Energy Lab. (What real value and return taxpayers have gotten for this R&D “investment” is something worth asking about, since we constantly hear warnings that America is falling behind our supposed rivals in terms of innovation. What’s NREL been doing all these years if we’re so stuck in the Dark Ages? But those might be questions for exploration some other day.)
Big Wind today perches, fat and happy, on a 4-legged throne. It benefits not just from direct subsidies, but from government-mandated purchases, military purchases and federal R&D “investment.” That’s not “leveling the playing field” — it’s putting wind providers in a skybox. Surely wind can survive without one or two of these props, at a time when the country is approaching $17 trillion in debt and running annual deficits that top $1 trillion.
I’m convinced that Big Wind will quickly learn to adapt, and might even thrive, if the tax credit extension is denied. But the future is far less promising for a Republican Party that can’t hold its conservative/libertarian base because it lacks the will or discipline to consistently practice smaller-government principles. The wind industry won’t vanish overnight if subsidies go away. But can the same be said of the Republican Party if disillusioned and disheartened voters do?
Does this by itself explain why the Republican base didn’t show up? Of course not. But it’s as plausible a theory as any I’ve seen.